Hot Docs ’11: El Bulli – Cooking in Progress

Posted: April 27, 2011 in Film Reviews, Hot Docs
Tags: , ,

A scene from El Bulli - Cooking in ProgressLast year, one of my top Hot Docs selections was Kings of Pastry, a documentary about the world’s top pastry chefs competing for the Meilleur Ouvrier. It was “one of the most delicious films ever committed to celluloid.” When I saw El Bulli – Cooking in Progress in this year’s program, I was immediately drawn to the film. Unfortunately, lightening didn’t strike twice and director Gereon Wetzel didn’t capture the same magic as D.A. Pennebaker.

Located in Spain, El Bulli is a Michelin three-star restaurant and Restaurant Magazine’s five-time annual best restaurant in the world. Serving 8,000 diners between June and December – a fraction of the more than two million requests – the camera is invited into the restaurant, kitchen and laboratory of chef Ferran Adrià. To prepare for each season, the restaurant closes for the first six months of the year while Adrià and his team retreat to Barcelona to invent the new menu.

This film is both boring and fascinating. Let me explain. Watching the group of chefs experiment with various foods, using a variety of techniques to accomplish numerous flavours for the first half of the movie is eventually mind-numbing. It may interest other chefs, but the minute variations that are basically undetectable to the audience all blend together. On the other hand, some of the results are enticing. For example, a plate with a base of olive oil, topped with tiny tangerines and small chips of ice makes Adrià light up with delight and peaks my curiosity; as does a cocktail of water and hazelnut oil. Most intriguing: a disappearing ravioli casing.

However, one of the film’s downfalls is its failure to divulge certain pieces of information earlier in the documentary. It’s not revealed until much later that El Bulli is an avant garde restaurant. Thus, a diner will be served 35 dishes in a three-hour period that may only require two to three bites to consume. The aim of each dish is to create an emotion and/or sensation first and taste second. Moreover, it’s later made known that this year’s theme is water, which goes a long way in explaining the direction of some of the recipes.

It’s when Adrià and his team return to El Bulli during the latter half of the film that the doc becomes more relatable. They begin training the more than 40 chefs required to produce the eccentric menu each night, and there is a lot more dialogue and activity. Moreover, we finally get to see some of the results of the all the testing that took place.

In the end, our patience is rewarded with stunning photos of the completed menu, but the journey is somewhat arduous.

El Bulli – Cooking in Progress is playing as part of Hot Docs on Friday, April 29 at 8:45 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Saturday, April 30 at 1:00 pm at Cumberland Theatre and Sunday, May 8 at 3:00 pm at Cumberland Theatre.

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